Walking the talk: communicating sustainability

Mahatma Gandhi had a saying: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you; then you win.”

I’ve murmured that wisdom to myself more than once over the years. Sustainability communicator is the best job in the world, but it isn’t always an easy one.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘communication’ have a lot in common. These two words are both difficult to explain, largely subjective and in possession of a long history, a gang of experts and an inevitable accumulation of impenetrable jargon. Put simply, sustainability is about thriving within our means; communications is about persuading people to believe in or do something. Both difficult, both exciting, and both necessary.

My first taste of trying to change the world was as a pre-teen anti-nuclear campaigner. Specifically an ‘anti-dumping nuclear waste near my school’ campaigner. It was the late 1980s and my neon glow socks made a strong statement about the dangers of radioactivity.

Since then I’ve learned a few things about how to hone and target a message. Some of it obvious, some anti-intuitive, but all proven to work.

1. Be positive.

From climate change to poverty, most sustainability issues are terrifying. While a good scare might grab attention, it certainly won’t hold it long enough to inspire change. Quite the opposite: it has long been a truism that fear creates apathy.

I think this is the hardest lesson for sustainability communicators to learn - it’s certainly the one I struggled with. We must ALWAYS start with the positive. For the simple reason that it holds attention. That doesn’t mean avoiding the stark implications of inaction, but always lay out the benefits of action first. At Futerra we came up with this formula to help;





Open with  a positive vision of the benefits of sustainability

Set out the risks of doing nothing

Articulate a clear pathway to the vision

What can people do right now?

This will help you communicate better, whether you’re writing a speech, planning a campaign or simply talking to your neighbor about the recycling.

2. Be entertaining.

Ed Gillespie, my co-founder in Futerra, has a saying: if you want to subvert the dominant paradigm, you have to have more fun than they are, and let them know about it. Most sustainability issues are complex; many are extremely scientific; very few could be described as ‘fun’. Graphs and jargon are a red light to stop paying attention before you start to nod off or, god forbid, look stupid.

Instead, we must entertain. This is what Richard Dawkins, Malcolm Gladwell and Brian Cox get so right. They simplify without dumbing down, and tell fascinating stories about how their subject relates personally to their audience. Sustainability could be the same: in fact, it has more salience to the average human than genomes or space travel.

3. Tell stories.

It’s hard to mock something you feel an emotional connection with. Tell your audience a story about your fight against bad guys, your quest for world-saving ideas or how you’ve overcome your demons. Tell stories and not only will you have your audience’s rapt attention, you’ll be tapping into the part of their brain (the emotional right side, as opposed to the rational left side) that actually guides most decisions. That’s a handy thing to know about when you’re trying to change behaviours. And if you want a crash course in how to tell human stories about something that isn’t human, watch David Attenborough.

Then they fight you...

Fast forward to the noughties: sustainability still isn’t ‘cool’ but celebrity endorsement, premium products and political manoeuvring has made the green lifestyle aspirational. Painting a topless model with green paint for a Page 3 photo shoot about energy efficiency felt a long way from painting anti nuclear slogans. A recent survey found that 69% of citizens in 51 countries are concerned about climate change.[1]

We’ve come a long way, we’re having more fun but we’re also fighting harder battles. We face an incredibly well-funded and expertly organised climate denialist campaign. We’ve won some political support but also found hardened critics in places we didn’t expect. Our fellow citizens worldwide are more informed and interested in sustainability, but they’re also buying, wasting and using up more resources than ever before. It’s time to add a few more rules for 21st Century communications:

4. Don’t greenwash.

Just don’t. With over a decade’s worth of misplaced trust to rebuild we, as sustainability communicators, can’t afford to put a foot wrong. At Futerra, we think this is so important we wrote a report about it – The Greenwash Guide. The short version? Clarity and authenticity are your watchwords.

5. Keep talking.

Change takes time. Just ask the movement for gender equality or civil rights. In my experience, it’s rare that a single poster about waste reduction makes any kind of impact; but it’s rarer that a well constructed, long term communications campaign about rethinking waste doesn’t.

Lastly on this, it’s important that we stick together; squabbling makes us weak. And besides, we’re not going to give up now. Not when the final stage of Gandhi’s winning strategy is in sight...

6. Be even more positive

We have to seize this moment by communicating sustainability in the best possible way. Let’s learn from our mistakes. No more greenwash. No more guilt or fear: let’s tell a love story, not one about loss. And let’s remember that, even though we don’t all agree about everything, we do all want to be heroes. If we can sell the vision of a better world, then we can also make our audience the ones that turn that vision into reality.

7. Look to the future

The issues that are changing the face of modern communications will also change the way sustainability is communicated. The 2012 Annual Edelman Trust Barometer found, in every country surveyed, that a “person like yourself or your peer” is rated the most credible - second only to academic and technical experts. [2]  People negotiate these ‘person to person’ messages through social networking sites. The result is that traditional, controlled messages can’t compete with messy but authentic personal communications. Today social media should be your first and greatest target for communications. I’ve carefully cultivated a twitter obsession to become a better communicator.

Then you win

I think we’re nearly there. Personally speaking, it’s never been a more exciting time to be a sustainability communicator. We have a lot of brilliant things to say, and people want to listen. Clear, compelling and positive communications are making a difference.

The job’s not done, but we are no longer being ignored. In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”


[2] “2012 Edelman Trust Barometer”, Edelman.  2012. Retrieved from: http://trust.edelman.com/trust-download/global-results/

February 2013


Word of mouth is often the most effective form of communication. Get people talking about it!
Eric James Sarmiento

About the author

Solitaire Townsend's picture

London, UK

Solitaire Townsend co-founded Futerra, the leading sustainable development communications agency, working with big brands, charities and... (Read more)

Solitaire Townsend | Timeline for 'Walking the talk: communicating sustainability'